[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-PRICE.html]

THE PRICE

by Arthur Miller
Directed by Todd Schmidt
Shattered Globe Theatre at Victory Gardens Greenhouse
2257 N. Lincoln Avenue / (773) 770-0333 / www.shatteredglobe.org
Through March 3, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 14, 2007

The splendid setting created by Kevin Hagan and lit by Mike Durst in Shattered Globe‘s current production of Arthur Miller‘s “The Price” provides a perfect frame for this masterwork of memory and sibling agonies. These designers have created a place that is delightfully musty, moldy, rough-hewn, attractive yet a bit repulsive at the same time, as all piles of the refuse of living can be where we can tap into childhood memories of hiding places or “salad days” of cheap apartments carved out of old urban dwellings that have seen better days. It seems moments ago this same company, some of these same splendid actors, and some of this same design team created in this same space at the old Victory Gardens theatre a claustrophobically perfect middle class middle western small town home for William Inge‘s “Come Back Little Sheba“. In the company’s current production we visit a cluttered attic of a brownstone where we spend a few hours mulling decisions, parental war crimes, and the effects of time. And we are lucky to spend time here, in this well articulated world, with these characters of middle age and older, attempting to find some balance and resolution in their lives.

Director Todd Schmidt‘s production takes us back to the middle 20th century. For a contemporary audience, the first few minutes of the play evoke a time 80 years ago, when vaudeville ruled the New York stage, and there were many stock market millionaires. Victor (Doug McDade), a beat cop on the verge of retirement, enters and rummages through an attic space apparently familiar to him, filled with memories. He picks up a fencing foil and makes some skilled yet rusty moves; he opens doors and drawers; and he opens a phonograph and puts on an old recording of two vaudevillians. For an audience in 2006, these voices were from the long dead world of vaudeville, while for the audience at the time of the play’s 1968 opening, these recorded voices would have been familiar to their parents. Miller specifies and his characters discuss the fact that these are the voices of Ed Gallagher and Al Shean, famous vaudevillians doing their one famous comedic bit. (The actual recording used in this production sounded to me as if it may not be of the actual vaudevillians, and a 1922 recording of them exists, but of a 1941 recreation of this act in MGM’s “Ziegfeld Girl” in whichJudy Garland portrays a fictionalized singing daughter of Gallagher. The text of the great bit, whichever version we hear, is accurate and still amusing.) In the midst of this music from another age, amidst dust and fencing foils and aged evening gowns in old wardrobe cabinets, steeped in history, family members meet to assess real and psychic value for pain suffered long long ago.

Victor has come to his father’s old digs to meet furniture dealer Gregory Solomon (mesmerizing Maury Cooper) to assess the value of his father’s belongings, crammed into these attic rooms, some years after his death. The impetus for this sale is the imminent razing of the building. Victor’s wife Esther (the fabulous Linda Reiter) joins him there to await Solomon, while discussing what the price set on these belongings might bring to them. Just under the surface is the consideration of Victor’s brother Walter (stolidDon Blair) and how to value his possible share of the income. To address this question the characters begin to unpack lurking ancient scores and tally sheets.

Price early becomes a metaphor that in Miller’s subtle words and the sinuous performances of these actors that does not overwhelm the mental and physical actions of the play. Prices are discussed related to moral obligations, sacrifices, investments, market prices. Victor says to Solomon, “Let’s set a price and finish”. Solomon notes “the price of used furniture is all about viewpoint,” Esther notes that “there is such a thing as moral debt” and a moral “price” to be assessed against the more financially successful brother Walter, to compensate for Victor’s care and support of their father, and deferral of his own college aspirations. The resonant central metaphor is elegantly and muscularly yet gently played.

Everyone in the play has suffered losses: the brothers Victor and Walter lost their parents; Victor’s wife Esther never had a sense of the possibilities of life; and Gregory Solomon, the furniture dealer, lost his daughter. Where each character differs and where the life lessons and the grand theatre enters is how each differs in approaching these life experiences. When reflecting on their father’s final decline over years, Victor and Walter note that “some men don’t bounce”, reflecting on his total lack of resilience (through personality and choice) that ultimately affected the young adulthoods of both his sons. One son excised himself from his father’s self-pitying grasp; the other adapted his life goals (leaving school, entering a career as a policeman), both with incomplete information about the parent they cared for in their differing ways. One character reflects to Solomon: “I can tell you bounce”. Esther struggles with her world and her expectations: “When will I believe what I see?” translates into: Victor has never made a choice that will make him happy and will make me happy. We stand at the open door and don’t enter, she says at the beginning of the play, stymied. Walter says to Victor about his choices: “it never dawned on me that you’d make that choice” and “you wanted a real life and that costs”. Victor resolutely states that “there’s a price people pay and I paid it.” And yet, there is a well made resolution to all of these themes by play’s end.

There are moments where the brother dynamic as written and as portrayed evokes memories of Murray Burns, the iconoclast, and his brother Arnold, the conventional guy, in “A Thousand Clowns“. The search in that 1962 play also set in New York City is to figure out how one modulates one’s sense of fun and adventure and perhaps countercultural impulses to fit into mainstream society, to accommodate adult relationships and obligations. In “The Price”, the struggle is over who paid more, who is owed more. Walter says to Victor at one point “Your failure does not give you moral authority.” We ask ourselves: who are the failures and who are the successes in this family scenario? There are a range of possible answers to this question. The Murray Burns sense of wild possibility is introduced into this cast of characters by Mr. Solomon, whose life philosophy is summed up by the statement “you never know until the last minute.” Solomon replies about their bit of business with words equally relevant to the world of human relationships, “You want to do business a little but you gotta believe or you can’t do it.” We may never know until the last minute, but we need to believe to get there. As do these characters. See this production.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 14, 2007)

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